One time, over dinner, Alex and I were talking about Star Wars and Harry Potter. Which did I like better, she asked. Taken in totality? Harry Potter, I said. I like all the films although in varying degrees but, with Star Wars, I only like the original trilogy and The Force Awakens. I don’t even like Return of the Jedi all that much because of the ewoks. As for the prequel trilogy, I told her that Jar Jar Binks will always be a deal breaker.
The talk about Star Wars veered toward what ever happened to Hayden Christensen, where he had gone and why he wasn’t making movies anymore. I didn’t know, I told her. As an aside, I remarked that Shattered Glass will always be my favorite Hayden Christensen film. It was his strongest performance and, perhaps, the only proof of what a good actor he was and a preview of what he could have been had he not given up his acting career too soon.
Our conversation shifted to other topics but, inside my head, I was already mulling over how relevant the story of Stephen Glass is today. No, Shattered Glass is not fiction. Rather, it as a stylized depiction of the rise and fall of talented writer. A journalist who rose from the ranks at The New Republic, Stephen Glass was eventually fired after it was exposed that 27 of the 41 feature stories he wrote for the magazine between 1994 and 1998 contained falsehoods and make believe. He invented people, incidents and even companies, and he occasionally interspersed them with real events. And he did it well. Even his catchy titles were phenomenal. “Don’t You D.A.R.E.“, for instance, was an article critical of D.A.R.E.’s rehab program. It was also peppered with inventive lies.
That was before the new millenium. Get caught fabricating the news and you get fired, vilified and shunned. You lose your career and you lose your chance of any new career. Glass studied law after his journalism days but both the states of New York and California refused to admit him to the bar for failing the moral fitness determination test.
Stephen Glass, however, was not an isolated case.
He was hardly the first to make up stories. Janet Cooke had done it in 1980 in a Pulitzer Prize–winning piece for The Washington Post. Nik Cohn, 21 years after the fact, blithely admitted to having made up most of the New York story that inspired the film Saturday Night Fever. More recently, Boston Globe columnist Patricia Smith was fired for making up parts of her columns. [Vanity Fair]
But if Stephen Glass, Cooke, Cohn and Smith were in their prime today, they might be raking in big bucks. They might be CEO’s of their own companies doing what they did back in their heydey. Fake news writing, for fun or to build or break political careers, has become the norm and a lucrative source of income for many. Professional trolling, it is called. And we’re not just talking cheap paid hacks here nor truly talented and overly-ambitious writers just looking for that one break that will define their careers. We’re talking big PR companies and their armies of semi-literate trolls planning and executing smear campaigns to push someone’s agenda. And most of it happens online—on news blogs, on Facebook, on Twitter.
Perhaps, Stephen Glass might find his niche today. But there’s this big irony. When Stephen Glass was finally caught with his lies, the exposure came in the form of an article about a paid hack.
“Hack Heaven” was a story about 15-year-old Ian Restil, a hacker who broke into the databases of Jukt Micronics, posted the salary of its employees alongside photos of naked women. Unable to determine how Restil cracked the company’s security, Jukt Micronics decided to hire him instead to make use of his talents. As it turned out, Ian Restil never existed; neither did Jukt Micronics. If you read the article in its entirety, you’ll be amazed at how well written it is and how believable the story. It is, in fact, quite riveting.
Today’s trolls, however, are not of the same caliber. The ability to write, and write well, is not required of them. They only need to know how to use a mobile phone and post on social media. A meme here, a few sentences there, and correct grammar is not a must. And yet, their posts go viral—so much so that they can sway election results. And the real kicker? They even get quoted by mainstream media.
Yes, fake news writing has evolved. But it is still very much around and, perhaps, more lucrative than it has ever been.